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Under The Shadow of the Caliphate



By Hasan Suroor

July 18, 2014

The ‘Islamic Caliphate’ marks a new phase in the sectarian battle for supremacy within Islam.

“If things continue like this, the history of our age may one day be written under a caliphate’s supervision.”

— David Selbourne, British academic and writer

Normally, one would hesitate to quote Selbourne approvingly in relation to political Islam given his tendency to hyperventilate on the subject. But, it is noteworthy that he issued this chilling warning — in a briefing paper to the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, later published as an essay in the New Statesman — long before the latest turn of events in Iraq and Syria. More specifically, it pre-dates the audacious move by the Sunni militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), to establish a medieval-style “Islamic Caliphate” in the heart of West Asia under the leadership of its helmsman, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who has declared himself the Caliph, and the “leader of Muslims everywhere.”

At the time, Selbourne was accused of fanning Islamophobia and spreading alarm, but in the light of dramatic developments that have rocked West Asia in recent weeks, it seems he was almost prescient. Despite doubts about its legal and theological legitimacy, not to mention its uncertain future, the “caliphate’’ represents a dangerous new advance not only on ISIS’ own ambitions but also the whole Islamist movement.


The sheer symbolism of “conquering” and controlling such a large chunk of territory — an area the size of Pennsylvania straddling Syria and Iraq — and “erasing” the region’s established borders cannot be ignored. The talk of a caliphate (a concept many may not even have heard of until recently) is no longer a fantasy. And the tone of the debate in Islamic circles is telling: rather than focussing on the absurdity of seeking to impose a seventh century system on 21st century, the discussion is all about technicalities: whether in unilaterally declaring himself the Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi followed the rules, and whether “Muslims “everywhere” are obliged to recognise his new status.

Denouncing the move, the International Union of Muslim Scholars, led by influential Sunni cleric Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, concentrated mostly on procedural matters arguing that the ISIS Caliphate was “null and void” because it was not based on “Shura” (consultations).

The scholars were at pains to avoid any criticism of the notion of caliphate as such stressing that it was of “extreme importance” for all Muslims, but said it required “consensus among Muslims worldwide regarding its form and content.” They also felt that “linking the concept of caliphate to an organisation known to be extremist does not serve Islam.”

Indeed, in many Muslim quarters — including India’s Urdu press, run mostly by Sunni Muslims — there is a sneaking admiration for ISIS. NewAgeIslam, the Delhi-based progressive news website, has pointed out how the Urdu press “manipulated” quotes from repatriated Indian nurses and workers about their ISIS captors by playing down, or suppressing negative opinions while playing up positive ones.

Poser to the Moderates

“Clearly a section of the Urdu Press has sympathies for ISIS. This requires a rethink. The earlier Muslims make up their mind about them the better. While Nuri al-Maliki is to blame for alienating Sunnis and behaving like a Shia dictator, the answer is not a Sunni band of terrorists loyal to the Islamic Khilafat of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ruling parts of Iraq,” wrote New Age Islam’s Editor Sultan Shahin.

As always, barring some scattered voices, the wider Muslim community (Ummah) has largely failed to express outrage over what Muslims are doing to each other in the name of Islam. As one liberal British commentator rightly asked: what is it about moderate Muslims that they seldom feel sufficiently outraged when it comes to denouncing their co-religionists, no matter how odious?

“Why is there no Muslim peace movement campaigning for an end to violence in Muslim countries, where the victims are Muslims and the perpetrators are Muslims?” wrote The Times columnist David Aaronovitch.

Meanwhile, it is important to answer the question many are asking namely, what’s all the fuss about? Isn’t the setting up of a “caliphate” simply a new stunt and part of the Jihadi choreography? Another high-wire act in the Islamist circus?

Well, the answer is that this high-wire act is unlike anything we have seen before, and belongs in an altogether different category from the hit-and-run tactics of say Boko Haram, Al-Shabab or even al-Qaeda, none of which has ever controlled territory for any length of time with the specific purpose of establishing a Sharia state. The only exception was the short-lived Islamic Courts Union which set up a Sharia administration in parts of Somalia, but were quickly driven out by government forces. As a norm, Jihadi groups have tended to use seized territories simply as temporary bases to launch terror attacks. Here, what we are witnessing, instead, is effectively the creation of a brand new Islamic state by a terrorist group. And not any old Islamic state but an uber-Wahabbi model based on a narrow self-serving interpretation of Islam.

Already, there are reports of a crackdown on music, imposition of the Burqa, and attacks on historic Shia sites that ISIS regards as “un-Islamic.”

There are conflicting views on ISIS’ prospects with some dismissing it as a short-lived phenomenon, while there are others who believe that it has come to stay. But all agree on one thing: the region’s politics has changed for good and the Jihadi movement itself has been thrown into flux with al-Qaeda suddenly looking like ISIS’ poor cousin sparking speculation that it could split further (ISIS is itself an al-Qaeda offshoot) and reinvent itself on the lines of Baghdadi’s outfit.

The truth is that we are on entirely new territory and nobody really knows how it will turn out, but what is clear is that it marks a new phase in the sectarian battle for supremacy within Islam with profound implications for what remains of moderate Islam.

Copycat Campaigns

Much will depend on how stable the new Islamic state will be. The wider world should be concerned if ISIS is able to dig itself in, hold on to the territory under its control and consolidate its support base. For that will not only whet its appetite for more “conquests” thus further destabilising the region, but it could spark a scramble for similar copycat campaigns by other Islamist groups. In that case, the entire Jihadi strategy might undergo a fundamental change with the battle moving away from western targets to “enemy” Islamic States.

There are conspiracy theories that ISIS is a western — more specifically American — operation aimed at destroying al-Qaeda from within and ridding the West of the biggest threat to its security. Such theories, however, are difficult to reconcile with the implications this kind of tactics will have for political stability in a region where the West has huge strategic stakes. Besides, ISIS poses a threat to some of the West’s most important Arab allies, notably Saudi Arabia.

But then the West has form on cynically gambling on short-term gains without bothering too much about the long-term consequences. After all, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were also the West’s creations which later turned against it. Leaving conspiracy theories aside, however, there is no doubt that the West’s non-interventionist approach has benefited ISIS, and though there has been some criticism of this approach it was the right thing to do given the history of previous foreign interventions whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or even Libya. The U.S. President, Barack Obama, deserves credit for standing up to pressure from hawks both in America — including his own administration — and in Europe who not having learned any lessons from the past were pushing for more active intervention.

So, perhaps for the first time the Muslim world, historically so heavily reliant on the West, is practically on its own; and how it handles this challenge will show whether it is capable of standing on its own feet. The two big boys in the region representing the deepening Shia-Sunni divide are Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it will require a great deal of statesmanship and vision on both sides to defuse this make-or-break crisis.

Between them, they can prove the Selbourne thesis right. Or they can prove it wrong. So, what will it be?